Middle East

Caravanserais: What are Iran’s historic marvels granted world heritage status?

54 Iranian caravanserais have been added to UNESCO World Heritage List

Syed Zafar Mahdi  | 02.10.2023 - Update : 03.10.2023
Caravanserais: What are Iran’s historic marvels granted world heritage status? Sad el-Saltaneh, 2022, Iran. Photo : ( Fatemeh Bahrami - Anadolu Agency )


Amid the hustle and bustle of the traditional bazaar in central Iran’s Qazvin city, known as a cradle of culture, arts and architecture, a spectacular castle hotel dating back to the late 19th century remains a center of attraction.

With towering gates, expansive lawns and exquisite architecture, Sa’ad al-Saltaneh has the distinction of being the largest and most picturesque caravanserai in the land of caravanserais.

A bastion of commerce and tourism in the pre-World War I era, this caravanserai, or roadside inn, has undergone multiple makeovers, but its aura and originality remain intact.

Sa’ad al-Saltaneh was among 54 Iranian caravanserais added to the UNESCO World Heritage List last month.

The announcement came during the World Heritage Committee’s recent annual meeting in Riyadh, where UNESCO unveiled 23 new World Heritage sites, from Cambodia’s temples to China’s tea forests, Mongolia’s Deer Stone monuments, Europe’s historic towns and Türkiye’s archaeological sites.

The vast network of caravanserais along Iran’s ancient Silk Road trade route provided “shelter, food and water for caravans, pilgrims and other travelers,” reads the description on the UNESCO website.

“They are considered to be the most influential and valuable examples of the caravanserais of Iran, revealing a wide range of architectural styles, adaptation to climatic conditions, and construction materials, spread across thousands of kilometers and built over many centuries,” it added.

Network of caravanserais

There are hundreds of caravanserais across Iran, mostly located on historic trade routes that connected the country with Asia and Europe, including the Silk Road that traversed vast deserts.

With the addition of the caravanserais, Iran now boasts 27 historical sites recognized by UNESCO, including Persepolis, the capital of the 6th century Achaemenid Empire.

According to historians, Persian caravanserais can be traced back to the Achaemenid era, which was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, but they blossomed during the Safavid dynasty’s rule between 1501 and 1736, when new monuments, mosques and caravanserais were commissioned.

“The origin of Persian caravanserais definitely goes back to the Achaemenid Empire as trade was extensive and these roadside inns eased the long travels of traders and other travelers,” Mohammad Mehdi, a university professor and historian, told Anadolu.

“But Safavid rulers paid greater attention to the role of caravanserais in promoting commerce and cultural exchanges and constructed many of them from Kermanshah to West Azerbaijan to Isfahan.”

Some of the prominent caravanserais in Iran, apart from Sa’ad al-Saltaneh, include the Shah Abbas caravanserai in western Kermanshah province; Zein-o-din caravanserai in the central province of Yazd; Qasr-e Bahram caravanserai in the middle of Dasht-e Kavir desert in northern Semnan province; and Robat Sharaf in Khorasan Razavi province that dates to the Seljuk era in 1144 AD.

Most of these roadside inns were constructed with baked bricks and gypsum, with water wells inside their compounds for travelers to quench their thirst, according to archaeologists and historians, and as the traffic on the busy Silk Road increased, so did the construction of caravanserais.

Embodiment of Persian architecture

Caravanserais have traditionally been known to represent the world-famous Persian architecture and the Persian civilization, with Iran acting as a bridge between ancient civilizations in the east and west.

“The Iranian caravanserai embodies traditional Persian architecture dating back to Achaemenids, Sassanids and Safavids. The name literally means the place of caravans in Persian, and it was a place where pilgrims and traders could interact en route to their final destination,” Hassan Alamuti, a cultural activist who describes himself as a “caravanserai enthusiast,” told Anadolu.

Caravanserais have a “large courtyard ringed by arched storerooms, ramparts, prayer room, hamam, and stables for camels and horses,” all the amenities that travelers would need, he explained.

“A large gate resembling an ‘iwan’ features prominently to protect the guests, which is why some caravanserais resemble somewhat of a fortress,” Alamuti said, referring to the vaulted space commonly used as an entrance in Islamic architecture.

He said Iran has the greatest number of caravanserais in the world, which are “found throughout the country featuring similar characteristics, while incorporating regional vernacular in accordance with the environment.”

Mohammad Esmaeil Esmaeili, head of the Society of Iranian Archaeology and a professor at the University of Tehran, said the listing of Iranian caravanserais is the outcome of “years of efforts by Iranian cultural heritage officials under various governments.”

“The Iranian caravanserai is one of the most amazing pieces of engineering … (in) complicated geographical conditions,” he told Anadolu.

He explained that Iranians wanted to engage in trade with other nations and to spread Persian culture but faced a big obstacle: lack of water in vast barren deserts across the country, which prompted them to build a network of caravanserais.

“This network not only connected Iranians with each other but provided a safe path for the global movement of goods and people that enabled Persian architects, poets, thinkers and scientists to move outside Iran and influence the whole world,” Esmaeili said.

Apart from the countryside, Alamuti pointed out that caravanserais are also found in major cities such as Tehran, which is home to a large caravanserai, Khanat, tucked away in the city’s busy southern part.

He added that the UNESCO listing will help “preserve its identity, origin, and history, and also assists efforts to restore dilapidated caravanserais and shed light on the Iranian concept.”

Value for tourism

According to Iran’s Deputy Culture Minister Ali Darabi, the country has more than 1,000 caravanserais, of which 700 are registered as national heritage sites.

The collection of 54 caravanserais listed by UNESCO, he said, are scattered across 24 provinces of the country.

Darabi said the move will have a “significant impact on the influx of tourists and expansion of tourism industry.”

Ahmad Dinari, a tourism and investment adviser, described it as a “valuable step,” stressing that it will attract domestic and foreign investors for the restoration and protection of caravanserais and also draw more tourists.

Iran’s tourism sector, beset by a host of challenges, has seen a revival lately, according to a recent report by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

The majority of tourists to Iran, the report said, come from Iraq, Azerbaijan and Türkiye.

Tour operators are also hopeful about the positive impact of the UNESCO listing, saying it will give the sector a much-needed boost.

“Iranophobia is the biggest challenge facing the tourism sector, which prevents many tourists, especially from Western countries, from traveling to Iran,” Kaveh Mirzae, a tour agent in the city of Kashan, told Anadolu.

“I think this UNESCO recognition will help dispel misconceptions about Iran.”

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